BY GABRIELLE McMULLEN
I am currently in Germany and staying in the Moselle Valley. At summer’s end, the vines are heavy with grapes and the twin towns of Bernkastel-Kues are in the midst of their annual wine festival.
At the same time the wider region is enjoying the Moselle Music Festival 2012 and recently I participated in an event titled a "wandering" concert (Wandelkonzert) in the Cusanusstift, a charitable institution founded by Cardinal Nicholas von Kues (anglicised as of Cusa) in his home town in the mid-1400s.
The Cusanusstift has served as a home for the aged poor since 1465. As well as the accommodation wings, its historical buildings include a chapel, cloister and library housing many of the founder’s manuscripts and scientific instruments.
Firstly let me explain Wandelkonzert. The first part of the concert was in the open-air courtyard inside the cloister. We then broke into three groups and moved in turn to the chapel, vaulted cellar under the cloister and neighbouring wine museum for small group concerts, before returning to the cloister courtyard for a united finale.
The musicians were a combination of strings, flute and accordion and the repertoire encompassed Castello, Dvorak, Telemann and Vivaldi as well as classical tango compositions by Piazzolla. It was a splendid evening in a setting of great historical significance.
Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1400/1–1464), known locally as Cusanus), is the most famous son of Bernkastel-Kues. As well as a prince of the Church, he is remembered as a papal envoy, church reformer and philosopher, theologian, mathematician and experimental scientist.
He was born in Kues to Johann Krebs and Katherina née Roemer, the second of their four children. His father had a successful business as ship owner trader as well as vineyards.
As a clergyman of the Diocese of Trier, Cusanus initially studied liberal arts at the University of Heidelberg and then canon law at the University of Padua where he gained his doctorate in 1423. He then proceeded to the University of Cologne and taught and practised canon law for a short period until appointed secretary to the Archbishop of Trier, whom he was asked to represent in Rome in 1427.
Thus commenced a career as Church diplomat, which saw Cusanus attend the Council of Basle and play a leading role in the Council of Florence. In particular he contributed in Basle to reform of the calendar and Christian unity.
He was therefore engaged by Pope Eugene IV in the cause of Eastern and Western church unity and, from 1438, as his representative in Germany, which necessitated extensive travel. During a visit to Constantinople to gain participants for the Council of Florence, Cusanus discovered works of Sts Basil and John Damascene.
As a Church statesman, he proposed reforms of Church and state, including the election of Holy Roman Emperors. While the latter was not adopted, it anticipated by some 300 years widely accepted means of election (Borda count).
While Cusanus approached Church reform, including of the Curia, with great dedication, he faced severe opposition. and many of his undertakings were unsuccessful, as the incident below indicates.
In 1449, Cusanus was nominated cardinal-priest of St Peter in Chains in Rome by Pope Nicholas V, who the following year appointed him Bishop of Brixen. The Diocese was in need of reform but Cusanus’ attempts failed due opposition from the local chapter and dissolute religious orders and, in particular, Abbess Verena of Stuben who, aided by Duke Sigismund of Austria, had Cusanus arrested in 1460 and he was forced to abandon his bishopric.
During this period as bishop and in the years following Cusanus continued his role as papal legate across Europe. His death in Todi, Umbria, in 1464 is attributed to an illness arising from torture suffered under Duke Sigismund.
Cusanus was buried in Rome at his titular Church of St Peter in Chains, which bears a monument to his memory. At his request, his heart was removed and transferred to the chapel altar of the Cusanusstift in Kues. With the agreement of his siblings, most of his personal inheritance and his father’s properties were left to found this home for the aged in perpetuity.
Appropriately for the Moselle Valley, the Cusanusstift receives income from local vineyards to continue the operation of the institution, which Cusanus stipulated would care for thirty-three aged men as a mark of Christ’s span of years on earth. In recent times it has been enlarged and is now open to both men and women, while remaining faithful to the wishes of Cusanus.
The legacy of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa also includes mystical works about Christianity, theological and philosophical writings, mathematical treatises and astronomical speculations. During the Council of Basle he wrote and dedicated to his colleagues De concordantia catholica (On Catholic Concordance, 1433). Contemporary Cusanus societies continue to study his works.
Let me finish this reflection from the vibrant bustle of the wine festival in the words of Cusanus:
Strive to seek God with the most diligent vision, for God who is everywhere is impossible not to find if God is sought in the right way ... God is rightly sought to the end that, in keeping with God's name, praise of God may reach the limits of the power of our earthly nature.
Professor Gabrielle McMullen AM is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.
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